Seven ways the IOC ruins the Olympics

Fining a butcher shop for hanging meat rings in its window? What is the point of the committee's rules?

Published August 7, 2012 5:57PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

The Olympics have been a lot of fun this year, what with underdog Gabby Douglas taking home the all-around gymnastics gold, the Phelps-Lochte rivalry, Rafalca Romney competing in dressage, all the great firsts for women athletes, and those wacky/wonderful opening ceremonies. But as in years past, one aspect of the games has been something of a wet blanket: the International Olympic Committee.


The IOC has plenty of necessary functions, to be sure: ensuring fair play, monitoring for discrimination and doping, and protecting athletes from “political or commercial abuse,” for instance. The group keeps order in an event that involves thousands of individual games, meets, and matches, with many thousands of people involved -- athletes, coaches, and attendees. So good on them for that.

That said, the IOC’s rules are famously stringent. In one recent incident, the group pulled a pro-Obama super PAC ad because it contained a few seconds of Olympics footage from 2002. Political abuse? OK, sure. But what about when the group goes after independent shop owners for displaying the Olympic rings? Or when athletes have to tape over parts of their clothing that feature logos of non-Olympic sponsors?

Indeed, the IOC’s branding guidelines are widely considered to be over the top; at some point they start interfering with spectators’ and athletes’ enjoyment of the games. The IOC argues that it must maintain good relationships with its sponsors, which make the games financially possible, by strictly forbidding any non-sponsoring brands to be featured in any way throughout the games. "It's not just a glib marketing statement to say no sponsors, no games," former IOC marketing director Michael Payne told the AP. "It's the fact." This year sponsors have reportedly poured some $4 billion into the Olympics. Many of those sponsors reportedly demand exclusivity. But do you think the sponsors really meant for employees to cover up the Apple logos on their laptops?

Then there’s the IOC’s rabid protection of its own brand, the Olympic rings. "The rules were intended to stop the big brands from getting a free ride on the Olympic good will," said Payne, again to the AP. "They were never designed nor intended to suffocate the genuine local community spirit -- the florist putting up a bouquet of flowers, or the butcher doing a sign with Olympic rings."

And yet, that is exactly how the rules are being used. The IOC currently has some 300 people on staff whose only job is to go around the UK making sure no one violates its branding policies. Way to go on job creation, though.

Here are some of the IOC’s more ridiculous demands.

1. Hope you like McDonald’s.

Want to eat some fries while at the Olympics? Then I hope you like McDonald’s, because Micky D’s has an exclusive fry contract for this year’s games, and no one else is allowed to serve them, with the exception of oh-so-British fish and chip joints (and even they apparently had to push pretty hard for that exception).

2. “Pimms” becomes a dirty word.

Pimms is a quintessentially British beverage that’s traditionally served with fruit. But the IOC has forbidden all dining establishments at the Olympics from including the name of the drink in its menus, all because Pimms didn’t pony up any money for the games. Instead, if you want a Pimms at the games, look for the “No. 1 Cup” on the menu.

3. Don’t you dare make Olympic rings out of food.

In 2007, the IOC went after a small butcher shop in Dorset for hanging sausages in the shape of Olympic rings in its window. The same thing happened last year at a cake baking contest in Shropshire, where contestants were barred from putting marzipan Olympic rings on their creations.

4. Don’t even think about using the word “Olympic.” Or “torch,” while you’re at it.

The IOC threatened a London restaurant called Cafe Olympic with a whopping $30,000 fine. It also went after another establishment for serving something called the “flaming torch bacon and egg baguette.”

5. Maybe leave the Nikes at home.

Going to the Olympic games and plan to wear a shirt, hat, or other clothing item with, say, a Pepsi logo on it? What about some Nikes? Chief London games organizer Sebastian Coe said he “wasn’t sure” whether spectators would be turned away for sporting the logos of Olympic sponsors’ competitors. (Coca-Cola and Adidas are major sponsors this year.) IOC president Jacques Rogge said enforcers would rely on “common sense” and only go after “blatant” attempts to undermine the sponsors. But it might be best to leave those Nikes at home if you want to be on the safe side.

6. If you’re an athlete, you’d better not say the name of your own sponsors.

While the IOC works diligently to protect its brand and the brands of its sponsors to bring in maximum dough, it has strict rules about athletes talking about their own sponsors. Athletes rely on their sponsors to pay their living expenses -- you don’t make rent money by spending 40 hours per week in the gym. And yet, athletes are forbidden from mentioning their sponsors, unless those companies are official sponsors of the games as a whole. Seems awfully hypocritical and unfair. And indeed, some Olympians are fighting back.

7. How dare you share your Wi-Fi access?

The IOC is also cracking down on people who try to set up Wi-Fi hotspots, even for private use. The group claims the ban is to cut down on interference with important wireless communication devices, but many critics allege that the rule is more about restricting social media use.

Many of the IOC’s rules started out as reasonable or at least understandable ideas, but they’re being executed in such a way that they’ve sapped the life out of the Olympics for a lot of people. No one’s under the illusion that the Olympics are free from the influence of corporate dollars, but why take it so far? Surely it’s possible to put on a fun event that’s paid for by corporations while not making everyone involved miserable in the process ... Right?

Lauren Kelley is the activism and gender editor at AlterNet and a freelance journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Salon, Time Out New York, the L Magazine, and other publications. Follow her on Twitter.

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